I was watching ‘Life Itself‘ the other day: one of the worst reviewed movies of 2018. It’s a grief porn piece from Dan Fogelman, and bares more than a passing resemblance to his phenomenally popular TV series ‘This is Us’. A multi generational love story with tricksy twists throughout.
It also features a shit ton of voice over.
From it’s opening, with Samuel Jackson doing a meta thing describing a tale that turns out not to be the tale but actually a version of the tale that evolves into the actual tale and…yeah: it loves itself a little too much, it utilises the device to the extreme. Fogelman tends to get up critics’ noses. Personally I really enjoyed Crazy Stupid Love; especially the twist in it which pretty much everyone else seemed to think was a jump the shark moment of stupidity. But, boy, does he overdo the V/O thing.
My question is: when does a V/O add to a story, and when is it used because the film maker can’t figure out how to get the point on screen without it? It is, in many ways, the ultimate in ‘Telling’ not ‘Showing’, or…as is often the case in Fogelman it is used in some post-modern ironic way that takes the unreliable narrator to new extremes (And, Life Itself loves it some unreliable narration: it sledges home the fact to the point of having a central character writing her dissertation on ‘the unreliable narrator’ and opines that ‘life itself’ is the ultimate narrator. (Subtle as a brick to the face).
I’m a heretic for saying it, but I actually liked the narration added to ‘Blade Runner‘…there, I said it. And, if I’m being all Bull Durham about it, I also think Paul Thomas Anderson is over-rated, that Wes Anderson hasn’t made a decent film since Rushmore, True Romance is the best film Quentin Tarantino has ever made even if, or perhaps because, it was his script only, and opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve.
Okay, anyone still left reading?
Actually – Bull Durham used Voice Over well: Susan Sarandon’s Annie Savoy gives one of my favourite narrations in movies; “I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I learned that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn’t work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there’s no guilt in baseball, and it’s never boring.” – that’s a monologue that sets the tone and theme of the movie perfectly, and her interjections throughout are used with wit and purpose.
There are films which use it well: there’s the obvious (The Shawshank Redemption, Goodfellas, Sunset Boulevard, Apocalypse Now), there are the witty or clever, (American Psycho or Beauty, Memento, Ferris Bueller) and there are the meta (Princess Bride, Deadpool, pretty much any Shane Black movie who I think is the master of the modern meta narration: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang being a masterclass in the subject), but there are a lot of bad, bad examples out there…too many that just come off as sub-par Shane Black: cheap gags to create a disconnect between what is being said and what we see, or build up to an expectation through dialogue only for it to be dashed through the visual (You know the type of thing: “This was my moment, I was going to do it, it was finally my time, this was when I became the hero…” cue fumbling the touch-down, tripping over, failing in some other myriad of ways.
In truth, I don’t mind voice over, and some of my favourite films of all time have narration – either via V/O or direct to camera (Annie Hall probably being the most obvious), but please, can we see something different? Can we try different ways of getting the point across?
Can we give Morgan Freeman a week off.
Use of voice over in movies – off the back of watching Life Itself. – too tricksy. unrealiable narrator.
When has it been done well?
Shane Black – Kiss, Kiss Bang, Bang.
Stand by Me